Medical professionals push back after Trump says COVID-19 cases are inflated to 'get more money'

Medical professionals are on the defensive after President Donald Trump accused “doctors and hospitals” of inflating COVID-19 patient counts to “get more money” during a campaign rally Saturday in Wisconsin.

“I'm trying to be very politically neutral, but it makes me very sad to think that people would believe we are benefiting by this,” said Denise Chamberlain, chief financial officer at DuPage County-based Edward-Elmhurst Health.

Illinois hospitals continue to see caseloads rapidly growing. Hospitals statewide reported 2,605 COVID-19 patients while Trump was making his speech. Of those hospitalized, 565 were being treated in intensive care.

Just two weeks ago, there were nearly 1,000 fewer patients hospitalized and roughly 200 fewer COVID-19 patients in an ICU.

State health officials Sunday reported 24 more residents have died from COVID-19 and another 4,062 new cases were diagnosed. The state's death toll from the respiratory disease has climbed to 9,505, and 374,256 Illinois residents have been infected since the outbreak began.

The state's seven-day average infection rate held steady at 6.1%.

At Saturday night's rally in Waukesha, Trump told supporters, “If somebody's terminally ill with cancer and they have COVID, we report them. And you know doctors get more money and hospitals get more money, think of this incentive.”

Critics noted Trump's comments were made in a state that has seen exponential growth of the virus over the past month and where health officials have erected a field hospital at the county fairgrounds in Milwaukee to treat any overflow of COVID-19 patients.

Chamberlain said hospitals do receive a 20% add-on from Medicare for treating COVID-19 patients, which was part of the federal CARES Act package. But those additional funds are set to expire soon and rarely cover all the extra costs needed to safely treat those infected with the virus, she added.

And that stipend only covers patients who are 65 years old or older, which represents somewhere between 25% and 33% of a hospital's COVID-19 patientload on average, health care officials said.

Hospital administrators and doctors would jeopardize their careers and face federal felony fraud charges if they attempted to claim a Medicare patient was treated for COVID-19 who was not infected.

“Just like any payer, there has to be documentation to support that the patient was a COVID patient, and if they die the cause of death was COVID,” Chamberlain said. From the outset of the pandemic, state and federal health officials have explained how the virus exacerbates comorbidity ailments — including cancers, heart problems and other chronic diseases — significantly increasing the likelihood of an expedited death.

At the rally Saturday, Trump vowed to “start looking into things” because “their reporting systems are really not doing it right.”

“This is such an insult. We report deaths how they occur,” Dr. Rob Davidson, a Michigan-based emergency room doctor and executive director of the Committee to Protect Medicare, tweeted at the president. “If you did your damn job we wouldn't be reporting so many COVID-19 deaths.”

Research also has indicated that COVID-19 deaths across the globe may be significantly undercounted rather than inflated.

Several studies show that the number of deaths attributed to COVID-19 in the U.S. are much less than the total number of “excess deaths” the country has experienced this year compared to prior years. The confirmed COVID-19 deaths only account for two-thirds of the country's excess deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The only real difference between this year and the others is COVID,” Chamberlain said.

The American College of Emergency Physicians released a pointed statement Sunday night saying the organization was “appalled” by the president's comments.

“To imply that emergency physicians would inflate the number of deaths from this pandemic to gain financially is offensive, especially as many are actually under unprecedented financial strain as they continue to bear the brunt of COVID-19,” the statement read. “These baseless claims not only do a disservice to our health care heroes but promulgate the dangerous wave of misinformation which continues to hinder our nation's efforts to get the pandemic under control and allow our nation to return to normalcy.”

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